Sherlock Holmes is one of fiction’s most enduring characters because of his fascinating idiosyncracies. But smooth down those oddball edges and what’s left?
A bit of a bore, actually.
Less mystery than meditation, “Mr. Holmes” gives us Conan Doyle’s great detective in his dotage, retired for 35 years and living in solitude in a farmhouse on the Dover coast.
As envisioned by director Bill Condon, screenwriter Mitch Cullin (adapting his novel A Slight Trick of the Mind) and the great actor Ian McKellen, this is not the Holmes of the popular stories penned by his colleague Dr. Watson.
Indeed, Holmes has little regard for Watson’s fictions, which he dismisses as “absolute rubbish… penny dreadfuls with elevated prose.” This Holmes — aged 83 — maintains that he never wore a deerstalker hat — “an embellishment of the illustrator” — and was a cigar man, not a pipe puffer.
The fictional Holmes and the real man do have a couple of things in common. Both are deductive geniuses. And neither has any use for emotion, which only clouds the rational mind. Facts may be strike us as pleasant or not, but at least they are neutral; cruelty and betrayal, on the other hand, are exclusively the result of human interaction.
But now Holmes’ life of the mind is failing him. His memory is going. He may spend minutes staring aimlessly into space.
He’s tended to by his housekeeper (Laura Linney), a war widow — the year is 1947 — and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). As the film begins Holmes views these two as irritants. Slowly, though, he and the boy hit it off, mostly over their shared enthusiasm for beekeeping.
The mother’s frustration that now she’s losing her boy to the old man isn’t eased by Holmes’ thoughtless observation that “Exceptional children are often the result of unremarkable parents.”
“Mr. Holmes” is about a case, but not a new one. Rather the film is filled with flashbacks to 1910 when Holmes was hired by a husband worried that his wife (Hattie Morahan) — distraught after repeated miscarriages — was maintaining a secret life. The erudite Holmes sleuthed out the facts of the matter but shrugged off the wife’s emotional advances, leading to consequences so disastrous he ended his career.
And that, really, is what “Mr. Holmes” is about — the process by which this supremely rational man lets down his guard and allows himself to feel.
McKellen is, as you’d expect, wonderful. His Holmes is a mixture of incisive intelligence, octogenarian crankiness, physical frailty and — when least expected — a sort of dementia dreamscape. At those moments his eyes cloud over and McKellen’s features seem to melt slightly, the lax musculature of a drifting mind.
His arrogance dented, his concentration frozen, this is as vulnerable as Sherlock Holmes has ever been.
Condon (“Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls”) — who in 1998 directed McKellen in “Gods and Monsters,” about the last years of “Frankenstein” director James Whale” — knows enough to stand back and let McKellen just be.
Parker is very fine as Holmes’ young companion, avoiding any trace of cuteness. Theirs is a bracingly cerebral partnership (the kid’s a minature Watson), and while there’s a modicum of affection between them, things never get sticky.
Linney, on the other hand, is underutilized as a rather bland domestic. She only gets to shine late in the proceedings when her son’s welfare is threatened.
“Mr. Holmes” is meandering, virtually plotless. Those expecting a last big case — a murder that will allow the old man to put his fierce intelligence to one last test — will be disappointed. Like Holmes’ mind, the film drifts — not unpleasantly, but often without purpose.
In truth, this tale could use a big dose of the “penny dreadful” Holmes holds in such contempt.
It’s only at the end, when the ancient detective finally recognizes the simple comfort of holding another person’s hand, that “Mr. Holmes” finds its emotional footing. Better late than never.